Senate Democrats believe the wreckage from Superstorm Sandy could hasten a "turning point" in the public's blurred perception of climate change and spur a bipartisan effort to build dunes and sea walls to protect Americans.
Lawmakers from stricken coastal states pleaded for an ambitious response yesterday to help victims of last month's storm build new homes, repair businesses or, at least, get the heat turned on. They also pressed for a much larger effort to fortify coastlines, transportation systems and whole sections of cities from future disasters, which they fear will be stronger and more frequent as temperatures and seas rise.
"The reason that we have this new normal and new extremes is because global climate change is happening and is real," said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), who argued that infrastructure standards of the past are inadequate. "Sandy shows the price of not being attentive to these acts."
The twin funding requests for both disaster recovery and longer-term projects to harden the East Coast could rise into the tens of billions of dollars at a time when the nation is grappling with severe budget cuts and growing deficits. It also promises to accelerate a rapid rise in the level of federal disaster spending over the last 20 years and stands to sharpen calls for different approaches.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) is reportedly seeking more than $40 billion in federal funding, including $9.1 billion for the construction of stronger infrastructure to prevent the kind of sea surge that washed over sections of the city during Sandy. In New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie (R) is asking for nearly as much -- $29.4 billion for repairs and $7.4 billion for defensive measures against future storms.
"Simply put, New York has no choice," Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said at a hearing yesterday by the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. "We must simultaneously adapt and fortify our coastlines to protect against future storms."
He added, "We're connected by a vast array of 100-year-old tunnels and bridges that were built long before the word 'climate change,' 'global warming' was in any part of the story. Sandy reminded us of a very stark reality. We can either invest now, or we'll pay later."
$91B in disasters
New York City is wrestling with its response to future storms; it's considering proposals for a massive network of water gates and, alternatively, plans for abandoning areas most vulnerable to inundation. Schumer said proponents of retreating should "be careful" about jumping to that conclusion.
President Obama is preparing to send a disaster relief package to Congress, which is expected to debate a supplemental appropriation bill that will decide how much emergency funding the states will receive. It's unclear how large the White House request will be, but it stands to be a much smaller amount than the $70 billion requested by New York and New Jersey.
Last year, after Hurricane Irene careened north along the East Coast, the prospects of funding reconstruction sparked a rebuke from fiscal conservatives, who sought matching budget reductions elsewhere. It's unclear whether Sandy will lead to similar disagreements, but the rising rate of disaster costs is bound to cause fiscal friction for years to come.
Between 2004 and 2011, 539 disaster declarations amounting to $91.5 billion were approved for stricken states, according to a report released by the Government Accountability Office in September.
Democrats hope they can find cooperation among Republicans to embark on a muscular task to build sea walls, levees and engineered beaches to protect the growing number of structures along the coast. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, drafted a new title after Sandy for the reauthorization of the Water Resources Development Act, which instructs the Army Corps of Engineers to undertake flood prevention projects across the United States.
Polluters' 'rearguard action'
Her title directs the corps to seek help from the National Academy of Sciences to identify new infrastructure projects that are able to reduce damage from future storms. It also instructs the corps to examine new ways of financing projects, including through loan guarantees to communities.
"I personally believe we're at a turning point," Boxer said yesterday at the hearing. "I hope it will be a turning point here in our fight to address climate change."
Adding sand to beaches, known as beach nourishment; rehabilitating salt marshes; and elevating dunes to protect coastal properties were mentioned repeatedly by lawmakers yesterday as ways to blunt storm damage. Other projects, like sea gates and subway system upgrades, promise to be trickier as spending cuts are activated.
"The urgency of now is critical," said Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who warned that a winter storm could overtake the region's coastal defenses, which remain weakened after Sandy.
Not everyone is convinced that Sandy will bestow a cooperative sense of bipartisanship within the Capitol.
Whitehouse spoke forcefully against the special interests that downplay the scientific underpinnings of climate change, and suggested that climate supporters should get tougher in their response.
"We've tolerated the deniers for far too long in this body," Whitehouse said. "There is a rearguard action in this building led by polluters to try to prevent us from taking action on this. But we have to face the fact that the deniers are wrong. They are just plain dead wrong."
Boxer's bill doesn't require the corps to explicitly study the impacts of climate change on its programs, but she says its efforts to harden infrastructure are adaptive measures for the future.
"And you can close your eyes and cover your ears and put a pillow over your head, but anyone with a heartbeat and a pulse can tell things are changing," she said of those who doubt the science.